Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
As the British poet W. H. Auden observes, quest narratives like Tolkien’s use the image of the physical journey as a symbolic description of human experience. Tolkien’s intricate design and mapping of Middle-earth suggest the significance of the realm’s geography. In general, Tolkien draws upon the traditional associations of the distinction between East and West. In the Bible, Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden to the East for their sins. In Tolkien’s epic, Mordor dominates the East—a vast, dark region of mystery. Good lies to the West and grows greater as one passes through the Shire, and finally on to the Grey Havens and the paradise beyond the Great Sea.
Tolkien’s geography, however, has not only a broad significance, but also an importance specific to each area through which the protagonists pass. Like the city of Minas Tirith, which decays because of the spiritual depravity of its ruler, each land the hobbits traverse is analogous to the travelers’ experiences. The Old Forest highlights the hobbits’ fresh bewilderment; the fords of the Anduin River parallel the tough choices Frodo must make regarding the future of the Fellowship. In Book VI, Mordor’s wretched plains mirror the evil of Sauron and the physical and mental destitution of the Ring-bearer. Mount Doom itself symbolizes the spiritual ascent that Frodo and Sam must make to destroy the Ring.
In part, Tolkien uses the different races of Middle-earth—Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Men, Orcs, and Ents—to display the diversity of the realm and variety in characterization. As C.S. Lewis notes, Tolkien’s characters wear their individual distinctiveness in their stature and their outward appearance. Legolas is soft-spoken and ethereal, like his “fair race” of Elves; Gimli is brutish and proud in his behavior, which mirrors his stocky size and the stalwart character of the Dwarves in general. The Ents, like the trees they resemble, are slow yet strong and wise with years. Men remain complex, as they have great physical strength proportionate to their size, yet are confused and ill-defined, as though their history lies mostly ahead of them.
Hobbits are popularly interpreted as Tolkien’s depiction of the common man, modern yet preindustrial. Certainly, Tolkien wishes us to identify more with the Hobbit protagonists than with the Men of his tales. The Men are mythic, like the giants or heroes of old who will later produce humankind as we know it. The four hobbits, on the other hand, venture forth from the sheltered Shire and experience the fantastical quality of Middle-earth. Their size reveals much about their qualities—their humility, love for common things, and jovial, amicable social habits. Their small size also emphasizes our sense that the creatures we encounter in Middle-earth are larger than life.
Frodo and Gandalf each fill the sacrificial role of a Christlike character at various points in The Lord of the Rings, but Aragorn’s fulfillment of the prophecies surrounding the return of the King to Gondor casts the Ranger as the most explicit Christ figure of the novel. Aragorn’s journey through the Paths of the Dead parallels Christ’s purported descent into hell after his death on the cross. Aragorn’s healing of the wounded in Minas Tirith—with only the touch of his hand and his kiss—equally recalls Christ’s work with the sick as recorded throughout the Gospels. Aragorn’s Christlike nature does not indicate that the third volume of The Lord of the Rings is intended to be a systematic analogy for the Christian narrative. Rather, the biblical overtones in Aragorn’s rise to the throne are more properly a motif, providing a structure for discerning the images of sacrifice, redemption, and rejuvenation in the Zion-like city of Minas Tirith. These principles and archetypes carry Christian meaning in Tolkien’s text.